Spring Position Preview: Tight Ends and Fullbacks

Oklahoma assistant coach Kevin Sumlin breaks down the competition at tight end and fullback heading into spring practice. Also, fullback J.D. Runnels (pictured above) talks his upcoming senior season and career at OU. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

NORMAN — What a difference a year makes.

One of the strongest positions on the Sooner football team heading into the spring will be the tight end position. The buzz this time last year going into the spring was that the Sooners were going to work to incorporate the tight ends back into the offense, and the coaching staff hoped that two tight ends would emerge and handle that responsibility.

James Moses did just that. Moses started every game, catching 16 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns while also do a great job blocking at the line of scrimmage. Redshirt freshman Joe John Finley emerged as an excellent pass receiver hauling in six passes in limited playing time for 71 yards and one touchdown. Junior Willie Roberts served as the third tight end and didn't see much playing time, but he did manage to catch one 13-yard touchdown against Nebraska.

As it turned out, tight end position was a solid position for the Sooners a year ago, and with 'Bubba' Moses earning an extra year of eligibility through academic success all three players will return from a year ago return.

With a solid year under their belt, the question is will more be expected of them this off-season and in the spring? A year ago, the mandate for all three tight end prospects was to get bigger and stronger, and heading into this spring nothing has really changed.

"Development in the off-season is the key at any position no matter if you are a starter or a back-up," said tight end and fullback coach Kevin Sumlin. "Those guys are being challenged. They are a prideful group of guys who have been around here for a while, and they want to be a great unit. Right now they are one of the veteran parts of this team, and with that come responsibility of playing well. I think their strength development and conditioning this off-season is going to be a key."

Moses finished last season at a solid 242 pounds, but no matter how hard Finley and Roberts try they always seem to need to get bigger. All three have certain techniques that they need to work on this spring.

"Bubba started and played more than anybody, and he has turned into a tremendous blocker. His challenge will be to become a complete tight end as a pass catcher," said Sumlin. "Joe Jon and Willie have established themselves as excellent pass receivers, but they need to develop more strength and become better blockers. We are pleased with their progress so far this off-season."

The fact Moses earned the extra year of eligibility is a big boost to the Sooners. If Moses had failed academically the Sooners would be looking to establish a tight end. As it is, Moses returns for fortify the tight end position.

"It was important to him and to our group because he has been around here and he has played a lot of football for us," said Sumlin. "His maturity and leadership are key because last year we had two new guys. Willie was a junior college transfer and Joe Jon had not played any major college football. Those guys are still maturing into the system, while Bubba has been around here. He is kind of a 'steady Eddie' like J.D. (Runnels). That always helps an offense and it always helps that particular position to."

With Moses back, is there really any competition for the starting spot? If not, is their competition for the second spot?

"We are still looking for a guy to surface at tight end who is a complete player, and I think all three of those guys do things very well," said Sumlin. "Bubba's strength is blocking in the running game. He did a fine job of that last year and will continue to improve. His challenge is going to be to become the complete tight end, which is what we are looking for.

"We are not looking for a guy in this role or that role. We are looking to get the three guys where they are complete players. We need all three to be threats in the run game and in the pass game. That is their challenge in this off-season.

"Obviously, Joe Jon's and Willie's challenge will be in the weight room more so than anything else, while Bubba's challenge will be his development work with the jugs machine and with the quarterbacks running routes. All three of them have challenges that they know and they need to build on their weaknesses to try to make their strengths so that they can become a complete player."

A year ago, an obvious effort was made to resurrect the tight end in the OU offense. Once again, the tight end was a target of Sooner quarterbacks and used in the passing game. The tight end was never the primary target, but there was a genuine effort to include the tight end in the passing game. So, what is in store for the tight end position in the spring?

"The tight end position is like any other part of the team in that as they start to show they can play well, then more and more things are going to happen to them as a position," said Sumlin. "I think it comes down to the players developing confidence and the team and coaches developing that same confidence in those players. That comes with practice and repetition, and then in those critical situations the ball will come to you. I think they are working there way into that role."

We get bonus coverage with Coach Sumlin, who also coaches the fullbacks. In one respect, that has to be an easy job for him as he coaches one of the better ones in the country and one of the very best players on the Sooner team on J.D. Runnels.

"Like Coach Stoops says, his stats don't show up in the box score," said Sumlin. "Coaches on our team and coaches that we play know that he is one of the better players in this league, if not in the country at his position. Although his work goes unnoticed by most fans, we as coaches and players noticed all the great things that does on the field. He is a hard-working guy and he has battled through some personal issues. He has been a tremendous team player.

"When we turn the film on you see the kind of effort and leadership that he plays with. He plays with reckless abandon not only offense, but also on special teams. He is a leader at our position as well as on our football team. He does everything that we ask of him and more."

For a guy that barely got a scholarship, he certainly has carved out a pretty good career at the University of Oklahoma.

"When I think back to recruiting and where I am at now I am amazed at what has happened to my football career," said Runnels. "I have never been a guy who thought that he couldn't play. I have confidence in my abilities, but I would be lying to you if I said that I thought things would turn out this well for me. I mean it wasn't too long ago that I was praying every night that OU would call me to offer me a scholarship. And towards the end, I didn't think my prayers were going to be answered. I am so happy that I can be a part of this great program at this great university. I am having the time of my life, and I hope it shows."

Runnels should get plenty of time off in the spring. I mean, we know he is pretty good and he will get his technique work in and then take most of the scrimmage time off. However, establishing a quality back-up at fullback is still a priority of the Sooner coaching staff this spring.

"It will be interesting because we will keep J.D. tuned up a little bit, but he has proven that he is a great player and we will hold him out of a lot of the contact stuff, " said Sumlin. "This spring we will look long and hard and see if we can find somebody that is going to back him up. Dan Townsend has got some snaps over the last couple of years as the No. 2, and he has come on carrying more weight.

"I wouldn't count Russell Dennison out. He came on last year and he has done some great things on special teams for us over time. I don't see why a guy with that much effort and ability can't come on and challenge at fullback too. Dane Zaslaw is coming off a knee (ACL) injury and we will see how he does. We are going to throw him in the mix. All three of those guys are going to have an opportunity to help us in special teams and battle for playing time at fullback."

We always have a tendency to write off Townsend because he is a walk-on, but every year he holds on to the back-up fullback job. Is Townsend once again the odds-on-favorite to back Runnels next year? Or will Dennison and Zaslaw finally make their move?

"They are wildcards, but they are guys who started off on defense, and everybody can see what Russell is capable of on special teams," said Sumlin. "He is one of the great special team players for us and he plays with reckless abandon. Russell just last year moved over to fullback and has done a great job in the off-season program. I think there is going to be a lot more competition at that position than people think."

However, the key question remains. Will J.D. Runnels get a carry this season?

"Yeah, you have to remember that Townsend is the only fullback to ever carry the ball here under Coach Stoops," said Sumlin. "J.D. comes in and blocks all that time and then Dan gets two carries against Texas A&M. Sometimes life isn't fair.

"We will see what happens as those guys have to establish themselves as ball-carrying worthy first, then we will reward that. I think J.D. has earned the right, but we have thrown him a bunch of touchdown passes. He tells me he doesn't care, but I think he would like to carry the ball once or twice."

Bob Stoops said it best when he said during the Sooners' bowl preparation when he was asked if Runnels was going to carry the ball, "Sure, we have a play in our offense for J.D. to carry the ball, but you have to realize that if J.D. carries the ball then AD has to block for him," said Stoops. "So, let me ask you guys something? Are we better off giving the ball to J.D. with AD blocking for him or giving the ball to AD with J.D. blocking for him? Maybe we can afford J.D. one or two carries, but any more than that and AD is not getting the ball, and I don't think JD wants that."

We all love J.D., but I couldn't agree more. But Coach Stoops, one or two carries during the season won't hurt! The big guy deserves it!

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